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     Volume 7 Issue 36 | September 5, 2007 |

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Cover Story


Death On The Asphalt

It is impossible to grasp the horror of a road accident unless one has actually witnessed one.
It is an epidemic on wheels. Thousands of people die on our roads every month. Many more are injured and disabled for life. The socio-economic burden is enormous. Road accidents kill more people than malaria or tuberculosis. Yet our attitude towards this public health risk is dangerously fatalistic. The very word “accident” implies that road crashes are unpredictable and unavoidable. Nothing could be further from the truth. The world has woken up to the fact that road traffic injury is a preventable tragedy. In this country, apathy continues to cost us dear. Based on crash statistics, a Bangladeshi is four times more likely to die in a road traffic incident than his Indian or Pakistani counterpart. Our roads are accidents simply waiting to happen. As population and commerce outpace transport infrastructure, road traffic fatalities are set to rise. We must act. Now.

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Photographs by the Writer

Salma Akhter was almost delirious with happiness. Her father was coming home after eight years as a construction worker in Saudi Arabia. He had left home to seek his fortune when Salma was in primary school. Now she was in college, and she couldn't wait to see her father again. “I wonder if Abbu will recognise me. I've grown!” she kept saying to her mother as they prepared to meet him at the airport and escort him back to their village in Chowdagram, Comilla. The mid-summer day was clear and bright as Salma boarded the rented Toyota Liteace along with her mother and elder brother, and began the journey to Dhaka. They didn't get far. Five kilometers from Comilla town, a Chittagong-bound bus seemingly appeared from nowhere and smashed broadside into their car. In an instant the Liteace was turned into a mass of twisted metal and broken glass. Salma's mother and brother were killed instantly. Salma was pulled from the wreckage and rushed to Comilla Medical College Hospital. She breathed her last shortly before her father's plane touched down.

Road crashes kill more people than Malaria or TB in our country.

Death on the road is abrupt, violent and horrific. It is also an increasingly common phenomenon in our country. More than ten thousand people a year are killed on Bangladesh's roads, according to United Nations estimates. In terms of numbers it is the equivalent of a passenger airplane crashing every week with no survivors.

The mind boggles to imagine the kind of uproar that would cause. But because road deaths happen in smaller numbers at a time, mostly in single digits, the loss of life goes almost unnoticed. But the overall statistics are scary.

Bangladesh has one of the worst Crash Rates in the world -- more than 100 deaths per 10,000 registered vehicles (WB/UNESCAP). We are right up there with war-ravaged countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia. Compare this to India's 25.3, Malaysia's 5.5 and America's 2.1 and it becomes clear that something is rotten on the roads of Bangladesh. To put the above statistics into clearer perspective, it should be remembered that it is based on conservative “official” data provided by agencies such as the police and Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA). The official figure for road deaths is three to four thousand a year. Independent studies by international agencies such as the UK's Department for International Development have suggested the actual death toll in Bangladesh could be three times as high. The number of people seriously injured in road crashes is estimated at more than 1,00,000 each year. It is an appalling price to pay. Even if we leave aside for a moment the emotional trauma suffered by the family and friends of victims, the economic burden in itself is staggering. It is estimated that road crashes cost us roughly 2 percent of GDP every year. This is almost equal to the total foreign aid received by Bangladesh in a given fiscal year!

Why then is Road Safety so low on our list of priorities? The answer is complex. It is partly because road deaths occur in twos and threes and fours across the country. It is partly because our government has an inbuilt apathy towards any issue that has not become politically expedient. But the main reason is a misguided sense of fatalism. We think road crashes are accidental -- an unexpected and unavoidable event. It is something that just happens now and again, a price that we must pay for the privilege of transportation. It is this numbing indifference that prevents us from tackling a problem that is an epidemic in every sense. Road crashes kill more people than malaria or TB, yet the government hardly notices. NGOs pay lip service. News editors use road traffic accident stories as fillers on page four. Meanwhile, the death toll continues to rise.

According to WHO statistics, 1.2 million people are killed in automobile crashes annually across the globe, 50 million are injured.

The world sat up and took notice a long time ago. Strategists stopped thinking of road safety as a mere transportation issue and recognised it as a public health and sustainable development problem. This view was reinforced when the World Health Organization devoted World Health Day 2004 to Road Safety. In a pioneering study, WHO and the World Bank spelt out the extent of the problem. According to statistics, 1.2 million people are killed in automobile crashes annually across the globe, 3000 lives lost per day. As many as 50 million are injured and suffer disability every year. A whopping 90percent of these casualties happen in developing countries. A large proportion of those killed and injured are pedestrians. The WHO predicts that without effective safety measures, the death toll will double in twenty years. Low and middle-income countries will bear the brunt of the carnage.

Road safety advocacy groups are pushing governments to take action. “Every six seconds someone is killed or maimed on the world's roads,” says Lord Robertson, former British defense minister, chair of the Make Roads Safe campaign and himself an automobile crash survivor. “Every six seconds we have another powerful reason to demand that the international community works to make our roads safe.”

It is impossible to grasp the horror of a road traffic injury unless one has witnessed it first hand. One moment the victim is hurrying towards his or her destination, thinking of everyday tasks and getting on with life. The next moment their lives are brutally interrupted.

It is a particularly violent way to go, and family and friends have to struggle with shock, disbelief, anguish and even anger. Those who survive often have to cope with disability. It is a long and painful road. The loss of a bread-earner means a one-way ticket to poverty for many families. The overall human cost is devastating. What makes the situation even more painful is that most victims are young and active. Road crashes are the number one killer of young people aged between 10 and 25 years.

Slow-moving vehicles like rickshaws cause the most accidents in highways.

So why are our roads turning into death traps? Research has shown that each country has its own set of risk factors. Some countries have icy roads. Others have high rates of drunk-driving. It does not snow in Bangladesh, nor do we have a prominent drinking habit. But our roads are still among the most dangerous in the world. Evidence points to some major contributing factors.

Mixed traffic is a feature of our roads. Population and commerce have increased dramatically over the years and the road transport system is struggling to cope. Cars, trucks and buses share the highway with rickshaws, pushcarts, and pedestrians. Throw into that mix random cows and goats and you have a cocktail for disaster. The highways usually slice through population centres, and it is common for hawkers to set up their stalls on the road itself. All of this goes on under the noses of the police. This chaotic situation is exacerbated by poor road sense on the part of drivers and pedestrians alike. It is common to read news reports of automobiles having frontal collisions. “Two speeding buses collide head-on.” Or “Truck falls into ditch after driver lost control”. If we go beyond the headlines we will often find a slow-moving vehicle was involved, an auto-rickshaw or a cycle-van that one of the speeding vehicles swerved to avoid.

People cause danger to themselves and those around them by jaywalking instead of using a proper over bridge to cross the road.

Ilias Kanchan, popular Bangla film hero, knows only too well the dangers posed by vehicles of vastly different speeds sharing the same carriageway. In 1989, at the height of his career, he was driving back to Dhaka from a cine shoot. In a particularly dangerous section of the Aricha road, he swerved to miss a rickshaw-van that was nonchalantly standing on the tarmac. His car spun out of control and was hit by a bus coming from the opposite direction. Kanchan suffered multiple fractures of his right leg, and a torn blood vessel in his left arm. Doctors told him his leg would have to be amputated, signaling the end of his career. “My wife intervened,” recalls Ilias Kanchan. “She said it would kill me if my career were ended. I was an artiste, and acting was my whole life.” With help from the government, Kanchan was flown to Singapore where his leg was saved, and he gradually recovered over several months. Tragically, his wife Jahanara who had stood by him during his near-death experience, died in a road crash in 1993.

BRTA should practice zero tolerance against fake licenses and unfit vehicles.

“I know what a curse road traffic accidents are,” says Ilias Kanchan. “It breaks up families, it ruins lives.” After his wife's death he set up a road safety campaign called Nirapod Sarak Chai (We Want Safe Roads), and has lobbied successive governments to adopt road safety measures.

The impact of having slow-moving vehicles like rickshaws on the highway has not been appreciated by the authorities. They negate the very concept of a highway a major transport artery that allows the smooth flow of traffic at uniform speeds. The drivers/riders of these non-motorised vehicles have no training, almost no road sense and expect speeding automobiles to steer around them. Although most highways have paved shoulders where rickshaws can ply, they will insist on using the main carriageway at a considerable risk. At night, they will frequently travel without lights. They appear to believe that because they can see the motor vehicles, the drivers can see them. But anyone who has had to slam on the brakes at 80 km/h to avoid hitting a rickshaw on the highway knows what a nightmare they can be.

Shamsuddin, 46, is a rickshaw-wala in Ashugonj. He has to make frequent trips on the Dhaka-Sylhet highway which cuts through his locality. He often carries sacks of rice to and from the rice mills that dot the landscape. “I used to have a “hurricane” lamp attached to the back of my rickshaw at night,” he says. “But since the price of kerosene went up, I have stopped doing it.” Shamsuddin's rickshaw has a gaudy painting from a Bangla movie at the back. If the panel was painted white or yellow, the rickshaw would be much more visible at night. Shamsuddin shrugs - he has apparently never thought about visibility much. Isn't he afraid of being run over? What will his family do if something happens to him? There is a long silence as the question sinks in. “They will starve.” he sighs.

CRP is trying to help road crash victims by not only treating them, but by helping them regain their rightful place in social life.

Research led by United Nations agencies has shown that public transport vehicles are most heavily involved in road crashes in Bangladesh. Unlike in developed countries where cars are mostly involved, trucks and buses account for most of the crashes and the bulk of the casualties in our country. Together buses and trucks make up 13percent of the total number of registered vehicles, but they are involved in 60percent of road traffic accidents. Crash data clearly demonstrates that bus drivers are by far the worst offenders. Although buses and minibuses constitute 5percent of total vehicles, they cause 35percent of the fatalities.

It is easy to see why. Buses make their money by carrying as many people on as many trips as possible. They travel at high speeds and are rarely fitted with seatbelts. Bus drivers can be seen on the highway driving with reckless abandon, as if imbued with a sense of immortality. They will swing from lane to lane, overtaking other vehicles and forcing oncoming motorists to pull onto the shoulder. They will brake abruptly on the highway to take on passengers oblivious to the discomfort of motorists behind them. This careless disregard for traffic rules is understandable when one considers that these drivers receive little or no training, and mostly carry fake licenses. Long hours on the road mean fatigue and drowsiness also become an issue. The responsibility of reining in these rogues of the road should fall on the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) and Highway Police. But strangely enough, we have never seen a professional driver hauled up for dangerous driving.

Actor Ilias Kanchan almost lost his leg in a car accident. His wife later died in another accident.

Road conditions are another major factor in road traffic injury. Experts are calling for “forgiving roads” -- roads that are designed in a way that prevents and minimises traffic-related injury. Developed countries have successfully employed traffic calming techniques over the years to lower road death. In our country, where people in many areas are grateful to have any sort of road at all, Road Safety takes a back seat. Damaged bridges, broken road edges, poorly maintained road shoulders, rough and potholed road surfaces, missing signposts and dividers, faded line markings and unattended railway crossings are all too common on our urban and rural roads. Granted, we cannot build Freeways or Autobahns overnight. But it is hard to understand why important roads should be dug up without explanation or warning; why manhole covers should be missing, why a divider should not have a reflective marker, why a speed bump should not have a lick of white paint to warn motorists. Apparently our Roads & Highways Department has more important things than Road Safety on its agenda!

Bozlur Rahman, the night guard at CRP was involved in a road accident.

In the end, it all boils down to awareness and commitment. Government agencies that don't pay attention to road safety, owners who don't maintain their vehicles, drivers who speed, rickshaw-walas who travel without lights, pedestrians who dash across the road without looking, all contribute to the grisly drama of death and destruction being played out on our roads.

The good news is that road crashes are predictable and therefore preventable. Road safety experts have over the past two decades adopted a systems approach to road traffic injury prevention. This comprehensive approach takes into account the interaction of three factors -- human, vehicle and environment during three phases of a crash event: pre-crash, crash and post-crash. Implementation of the “safe systems” model has brought significant reduction in levels of traffic-related death and injury in many countries, including some developing ones. Admittedly, it will take time for us to attain those levels of road safety. But research has shown that public education backed by tough enforcement can achieve good results relatively cheaply and quickly. Safety measures that could work well in the Bangladesh context might include:
-Promoting road safety through mobile road shows. Multimedia projectors can be used to screen hard-hitting movie clips, and plays. Target: schools, roadside markets, bus and truck depots.

-Cracking down on fake licenses. Make refresher training mandatory for commercial drivers. Bus and truck owners should be told their route permits might be cancelled if their drivers did not attend refresher sessions.

-Reviewing the performance of the Highway Police. This branch was set up to improve safety and security on our highways. It is part of their brief to take action against speeding, dangerous driving, overloading etc. It is clear they have not lived up to their mandate.

-Preventing non-motorised vehicles such as rickshaws from traveling on the high-speed carriageway. They must use the paved shoulder cum rickshaw lane. It should be strictly illegal to travel without a lamp, and the rear panel must be painted yellow or silver. The highway police should enforce these rules.

-Buckle up, Wear Helmets, and Be Seen, Be Safe campaigns. Seat belts, helmets and bright clothing at night can dramatically improve road safety.

-Identification and special attention to “black spots” places where crashes frequently happen. Studies in many countries have shown that simply placing stationary police cars at hot spots on the highway can help curb reckless driving and bring down accidents.

-Overhauling the BRTA. There should be zero tolerance towards fake licenses and unfit vehicles.

The Safe Systems approach to Road Safety requires a concerted effort from government including parliament, the police, road users, NGOs and the media. The WHO is calling for a “culture of road safety”. It is this culture that we must foster in Bangladesh, as a first step towards increased political commitment.

Many rickshaws ply through the roads without any lights, making them almost invisible to motorists.

The United Nations recommends designating a lead agency to coordinate the Road Safety effort of the various government bodies. In Bangladesh, it is the BRTA that is supposed to play this role. Unfortunately, a search of the BRTA website does not reveal any specific road safety initiative. The section headed Road Safety only contains a couple of PDF files of the National Road Traffic Accident Report, the most recent of which is dated 2002.

When contacted, BRTA's Deputy Director (Enforcement), Syed Mohammed Mujibul Hoque claimed the BRTA is always vigilant against fake licenses and unfit vehicles. A mobile court drive is currently going on against such offenses, he said. A maximum fine of Tk 500 is imposed if a fake license is found. Apart from this, the Deputy Director could not mention any other road safety initiative. Mr. Hoque said the BRTA is unable to enforce compliance on the highways. “The highway police is supposed to do that,” he said. When asked if the BRTA had a refresher training programme for commercial drivers, the Deputy Director replied they did not currently have such a programme.

If the government's lack of commitment towards Road Safety is disappointing, the role of the NGOs is downright depressing. Many of the major NGOs have road safety programmes. But there is criticism that these NGOs have adopted a “trickle down” approach where much of the resources available is spent on top heavy seminars and high powered committees while very little is actually done on the ground.

Ilias Kanchan is scathing in his criticism. “Most of the big NGOs talk the talk, but don't walk the walk. They receive government backing and get funds from international donors. But they spend it on seminars and so-called research, and produce tons of paper. I ask you, how is that ever going to have an impact on bus drivers, and rickshaw-pullers and pedestrians?”

One NGO that has taken a hands-on approach is the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP). Besides running the only hospital in Bangladesh that specialises in the treatment of spinal cord injuries, CRP has adopted a holistic approach towards the treatment and rehabilitation of road crash victims. CRP has a public education programme that includes getting road crash victims to share their stories with school children.

“I get so angry sometimes,” says Valerie Taylor, OBE, the British physiotherapist who founded CRP back in 1979. “The other day on the Savar road I saw a child with his head cracked open like a nut. What a waste! In the UK, school children get the “look right, look left, then right again” message drilled into them at an early age. Such a simple campaign could save so many young lives in Bangladesh!”

Children have to be taught at an early age to look both ways before crossing the street.

CRP is trying to help road crash victims by not only treating them, but by helping them regain their rightful place in social life. No one embodies the CRP spirit more than Bozlur Rahman, their night guard of many years. Bozlur was already employed at CRP when he was involved in a road crash. The crash broke Bozlur's back, but it didn't break his spirit he learned to use his hands and feet again, got back into his job and helped to turn his story into a message aimed at convincing others not to commute carelessly.

Such resilience will be necessary if we are to turn the tide of death and disability. Help may be at hand. In March this year, the UN General Assembly approved a plan for the first ever Ministerial Summit on Global Road Safety. It is hoped that the summit, scheduled for 2009, will push road safety up the political agenda, and kick-start a global fight back against road death. Perhaps the Bangladesh government and NGOs will be inspired to take some belated steps to improve safety on our roads. But whatever happens, for Jahanara Kanchan, Salma Akhter and millions others it will be a case of too little too late.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008